I won’t be a phony. When the Blues blew a 3-1 lead to Minnesota in Game 5, somehow frittering away a commanding advantage in the potential clincher of a low-scoring series, many bad thoughts invaded my brain…
There they go again …
A half-century of hockey, no Stanley Cups…
Can’t believe the Blues are doing the fur-ball thing again …
Why do we get our hopes up? …
I don’t trust the boys to win Game 6 …
I guess that’s why they call them the Blues…
Note to self: SHUT UP!
Of course, the Blues survived to win Game 5, clinching the first-round series with a 4-3 overtime victory that put the Minnesota Wild on a big sheet of ice, sliding right into the offseason. The Blues dug in and came out of the Excel Energy Arena with a another character win. And they rewarded their coach, Mike Yeo, with a conquest of a conniving Wild team that conspired to quit on him about 14 months ago.
Onward and upward, yon Blue Note.
I talked about this on the radio last week. I suggested that we need to view the Blues through a different lens. (More on that in a few moments.) I think many Blues fans have the usual sense of dread when watching a tense postseason series. Blues fans, a loyal group if there ever was one, have had their tickers broken too many times to count, too many times than they want to remember.
Squandered leads, blown games, shaky goaltending, missed opportunities, shrinking stars … if you are a veteran Blues fan, the twists and turns of playoff hockey feel like a knife … and cut like a knife. All of this makes you very nervous. The taught nature of playoff hockey is thrilling … but can be awfully unbearable.
And for good reason: historical postseason futility.
That’s the main reason I wrongly picked Minnesota to win this thing. I can’t get the Blues’ past out of my head.
For the fans that have watched so many reruns of this horror hockey film, the fear or failure is a constant presence. It just doesn’t go away, because we know how the movie will end.
But I submit to you … and to myself: we have to change our mindset with this team.
As I said on my show last week: These Blues aren’t the same. I don’t think it’s fair to blame them for the sins of the past. I don’t think it’s right to assume that the Blues will be in position for the Heimlich maneuver soon after entering the hazard zone, the playoff zone.
Please understand something here. I’m not saying that the Blues are beyond vulnerability. I’m not saying that this will be the year — finally — whern they go all the way, or at least make it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since Richard Nixon’s first term in the White House.
Hell, the upcoming second-round series against rival Nashville will be a white-knuckle affair. Keep your nitroglycerine tabs handy. This will be Old Testament Hockey. Two hot-hot-hot goaltenders, two teams that specialize in suppressing offense and denying goals. Two teams that know each other very well. There are no secrets. The fight for every inch of ice will be fierce. This series is the epitome of a toss-up.
But the Blues aren’t spooked by these encounters. They may lose to the Predators, but I’d be stunned if we see the Blues go meekly. They’ve been a tough-minded bunch.
And they’ve been a successful playoff team the last two seasons.
The ultimate success? Of course not. The drained Blues were bounced from the third round last season, eliminated in six games by San Jose. They will have to go through a gauntlet to make it past Nashville. But relative to the rest of the NHL — and relative to their own history — the Blues aren’t a pushover come playoff time. They’ve learned a lot about knowing how to rebound from panic attacks and crises.
They’re getting closer.
Here’s why I say this:
— Over the last two postseasons, the Blues have won 14 games. That’s more than any NHL team except Pittsburgh (20) and San Jose (16.) And San Jose was eliminated by Edmonton on Saturday.
–– Over the last two seasons, the Blues have won more postseason games than notables such as Washington, Anaheim, the NY Rangers, and Chicago. The Blues have won ELEVEN more postseason games than the Blackhawks (14-3) since the start of the 2016 playoffs. That’s just crazy.
— Over the last two postseasons the Blues’ 14 wins are as many as the franchise won between 2003 and 2015. This Blues team is 14-11. Those Blues teams (2003-2015) were 14-29. Big difference, yes?
— The Blues have won three of their last four postseason series. Granted, going 3-1 in four postseason series may not be a big deal to playoff monsters (Chicago, Los Angeles) that have won multiple Stanley Cups in recent years. But it’s certainly a deviation for the Blues. Between 2003-2015, the Blues lost seven of eight postseason series. Between 2002-2015, the Blues lost eight of 10 playoff series.
— Not counting injured Blues the current crop of forwards have collectively played in 208 postseason games over last two seasons. Their current defensemen have collectively competed in 129 postseason games during the last two years. Sure, the Blues had to go their own way this time around after losing forwards David Backes and Troy Brouwer to free agency, and with the trades that sent goaltender Brian Elliott to Calgary and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington. But the players that form the 2016-2017 Blues have made a positive transition.
The Blues have a nucleus of players that took hard knocks in the playoffs in recent seasons. In four consecutive trips to the postseason (2012-2015) the Blues teams went 10-17, losing four of five series. A few of the current Blues were even part of the young 2009 team that got swept out of the first round in four straight games. If you want to include that series, the record is 10-21.
The trend has been reversed … pretty dramatically if you ask me.
We’re seeing the value of persistence from guys like Alex Steen, Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrik Berglund, Jay Bouwmeester, David Perron, Paul Stastny, Magnus Paajarvi, Jake Allen, etc. Some haven’t been in place continuously since 2009, or even 2012 … but they’ve been around to suffer plenty of postseason frustration and misery.
One of two things can happen when you’ve routinely come up short in the Stanley Cup Tournament: the failure can make you weaker, or make you stronger. The 2016 Blues survived a Game 7 to topple Chicago in the first round, and prevailed in another Game 7 to defeat Dallas in the second round. The positive result — and reinforcement — was a critical development.
Yep, the ‘16 Blues lost steam in the Western Conference Finals. But fatigue was a factor; their players hadn’t ventured as deep as the third round before. The weariness was evident with Elliott, who was marvelous in goal for the first two rounds before fading in the third. But most of the team dragged against San Jose.
The Blues aren’t there yet, but clearly they’ve come a long way learning how to win in the playoffs. And much of it comes down to having the necessary mental strength to handle the pressure, the discomfort, the adversity and the setbacks that can destroy your confidence. The Blues had more than a few chances to capitulate to stress during the Minnesota series. They didn’t fold.
“It’s not always going to be the way you plan it out,” said Pietrangelo, the Blues’ captain. “But we found a way to win.”
Contrast the Blues with the Minnesota Wild — a talented club of high-paid, acclaimed veterans that have lost 12 of the last 15 postseason games. Their stars — for whatever reason — don’t shine during the playoffs. Adversity hasn’t made the Wild stronger. Quite the opposite. They’re getting progressively worse in the postseason despite the owner’s payroll largesse and the GM’s all-in approach at the trade deadline.
You probably saw this quote from Wild coach Bruce Boudreau after his team’s embarrassing elimination in a series that had Minnesota losing all three home games.
“Well, they weren’t the better team,” Boudreau said of the Blues. “But they won four games.”
Yeah, coach. This is otherwise known as “Playoff Hockey.”
This isn’t Olympic figure skating, where the judges award medals based on performance style. In the NHL playoffs, you wipe off the blood, immediately erase negative thoughts that creep in, and go claw your way to a win by any means necessary.
Boudreau has a superb .652 regular-season winning percentage in leading three abundantly talented teams over the last 11 seasons: Washington, Anaheim and Minnesota.
But his postseason record is 42-43.
Obviously, Boudreau and the Wild have learned nothing from postseason failure.
The Blues have learned plenty.
And they still have a lot to learn.
But at least they’re learning.
Thanks for reading …